2 minute read

Tragedy and Comedy

The Latin World

By Seneca's time, plays may have largely or entirely ceased to be performed by actors and, at most, been presented only by public recitations. The term tragedy was also used for pantomime productions, tragoediae saltatae, and also for citharoediae, in which a tragic protagonist sang and accompanied himself on the lyre.

The most important treatment of tragedy and comedy in the early Middle Ages was that of St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). In book 8 of his Etymologies, he cites Horace's etymology for tragedy, taking it to mean that the poets were originally held in low esteem, but that later they became highly regarded for the skill of their very realistic stories. Tragic poets deal with public affairs, the histories of kings, and sorrowful matters, whereas comic poets recite the deeds of private persons and emphasize joyful things. However, the new comic poets, like Persius (34–62 C.E.) and Juvenal (c. 55 or 60–in or after 127 C.E.), are called satirists, and they expose vice. Both tragic and comic poems consist entirely of the dialogue of characters.

In book 18 of his encyclopedia, Isidore takes up tragedy and comedy again, this time as theatrical pieces. Comic and tragic (or comedic and tragedic) poets sang their poems on the stage, while actors and mines danced and made gestures. Thanks largely to this account, classical dramas were regarded in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance as having been recited by the poet himself, that is, Seneca, Plautus, or Terence (except that in Terence's case a stand-in was used); while he declaimed the lines of all of the characters himself, actors would mime their words and actions.

In addition to "theatricizing" tragedy and comedy in book 18, Isidore now gives a darker account of the subject matter of the two forms (there was some hint of this with regard to comedies in the account of the satirists in book 8). Here he says that the comedians sang not only of private men, but specifically of "the defilements of virgins and the loves of whores," and tragedians sang of the "sorrowful crimes of wicked kings" (18.45–46).

Just as influential as Isidore's accounts was a passage written a century before him by Boethius (c. 480–c. 524). In the Consolation of Philosophy, he portrays Lady Philosophy as inviting Lady Fortune to give an account of herself, and at one point she says, "What does the cry of tragedies bewail but Fortune's overthrow of happy kingdoms with a sudden blow?" (2 pr. 2). Subsequent commentators on the Consolation offered definitions of both tragedy and comedy. Notably, William of Conches, writing around the year 1125, says that tragedy begins in prosperity and ends in adversity, whereas in comedy the situations are reversed.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTragedy and Comedy - Greek Origins, The Latin World, Medieval Contributions, The Renaissance, Problems Of Definition, Bibliography